Excerpt

“Blackout”

Alyson Foster

May 20, 2016 
The following is from Alyson Foster’s collection of short stories, Heart Attack Watch. Alyson Foster grew up in Michigan and received her BA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, winning a Hopwood Award for her fiction. She received her MFA from George Mason University, where she was a Completion Fellow, and her short fiction has appeared in various publications.

Leah is always awake—even at the odd times I get off my shifts. At midnight, at seven in the morning. None of the books I bought three years ago when she turned twelve said anything about this. If anything, they’d said the exact opposite. The long durations the typical adolescent spends in bed can often strike adults as excessive—a symptom of laziness. I’d hidden the books under my nightstand knowing Paul would make fun of them. When he finally found one, he did. “What are you reading these things for, Denise?” he had said. “It’s not like she’s going to grow another head.”

“I just want a bit of forewarning,” I replied defensively. “To hear some people talk, that’s exactly what happens.”

“Some people are idiots,” Paul said.

At last, Ansel squats arthritically in the grass, and I impatiently tap my knuckles on the railing. “Attaboy, Ansel,” I say out of habit, although he won’t hear me. I have to spring down the steps and take him by the collar. It hasn’t rained in over two weeks, and all the grass has a scourged look to it. You can see straight through the dry tangles to the packed dirt, where small stones have surfaced and are sunning their glittering hides in the sun.

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Ansel’s back is covered in whorls like the map of a storm system. He would stay outside all day if I let him, stalking the evil wasps until he dropped over dead from the heat. We’re both unsteady on our feet this morning. I have to boost his back end up the stairs; in doing so I stumble twice, and the second time I go down. When we finally reach the top, Leah is standing behind the screen door watching our sad two-ring circus and tapping her brown lunch bag against her knee. I don’t know how much she’s seen.

“I’m off,” she says.

“All right, then.” She is now taller than I am, and I have to stand on my tiptoes to kiss her forehead. There’s an ascetic severity to the centered white part that curves over the crown of her head. It makes her look like a Quaker, imposes a kind of piety on her thin and serious face. “Remember I’m working a double shift today, so I won’t be home until late.”

I watch her turn out of the gate and down the crooked sidewalk, off into the world. She drags her feet as she walks, stares dutifully straight ahead. The sun beating down on her is so intense that before she’s gone a block, small dark curves have blossomed through the back of her thin blue cotton T-shirt, just below her shoulder blades, like wings.

* * * *

Our house is about two miles from the hospital where I work. I can take the bus, but I prefer to walk on all but the most inclement of days, to set my feet in motion and fall into the meditative state that repetition inspires. The majority of my route takes me through neighborhoods like our own—rows of old townhouses on rippling streets. Each narrow house has been cobbled onto the one before it like an afterthought, constructed on architectural inclinations all its own, and the result—little switchback staircases, a corner bowed in concession to the ancient trunk of an elm, a shade garden beneath a wrought-iron grate—is one of pleasing idiosyncrasy. Daisies spill across the gates; some of them have insinuated themselves between the mismatched concrete rectangles of the sidewalk, which have begun to list and separate with the years.

Not far from the hospital, however, the blocks take on a seedier quality, the houses more shambling, the flowers growing scant, until I cross into a—park is not quite the word for it. It’s a small scrap of land owned by the city, but no one has done any upkeep on it for years. Long weeds trail across the path; crumpled cans glint from the depths of them and plastic bags balloon from their fringed ends, swelling and shrinking with the breeze. Today they stir only slightly like faint breathing; the air is so still.

In the center of this wild patch a few homeless people sleep on the scarred planks of benches around a neglected fountain. The tarnished silver water in its stone basin reflects a dim variation of the sky. The state of homelessness is typically a transient one; most who fall into it are out on the street for less than a week, but here in this park are the veterans—I have seen them for years and know them by sight. A man whose pachydermatous feet strain at the unfastened straps of his sandals. An old woman with pale eyes so clouded by cataracts that her gaze is as opaque and swirled as an atmosphere; she is lost beneath it. I pass and nod to her, but she simply rocks to herself and does not see me.

* * * *

As the hospital looms before me, I glance down and check my watch. Leah should be at the school by now. The thought of her sitting down at a desk so early in the morning on a day when most high school students across the city are still sleeping, readying themselves for a day at the beach or the movie theater makes me sigh out loud. Two months ago, when the nuns at Leah’s school had urged this upon us, this summer program for “gifted and challenging students,” Paul had been ambivalent. “I don’t trust anything buried under those kind of euphemisms,” he said when I told him about it. “There’s always a stink at the bottom.”

But my conference with Leah’s teacher had frightened me. The woman and I had faced each other across a bare wooden tabletop in one of the empty classrooms. There was nothing between us except a single stark line of reflected light. Sister Clarence set her elbows down and folded her hands along it. “I’m going to be frank with you,” she’d said. “I think there is something wrong with your daughter.”

I had been staring down at the woman’s neatly coiled fists, but I looked up when she said this. The immense glasses she wore bowed her face out at the edges and imbued her eyes with excessive detail. When we’d enrolled Leah in Catholic school, I’d had a ridiculous romantic vision of habits and rosaries, but the sister was adorned with nothing more ornamental than a blue skirt and collared shirt buttoned all the way to her neck. “She gets beautiful grades,” I said. “I know she is very tightly wrapped. Maybe a bit too interiorized.”

“She never says anything.” Sister Clarence leaned forward in her chair. “I’m not being hyperbolic here, Mrs. Fletcher. I have been keeping notes for the past few months. Not a word in class and not to any of her classmates—which of course always concerns us more.”

“She talks.” My voice sounded shrill even to my own ears. “She may not have many friends, but that doesn’t mean something is wrong with her. Just because she’s not one of those girls who’s always flapping her—”

“There’s no need to be defensive.” Sister Clarence did not blink an eye. “We’re both on the same side. You must remember though, that sometimes people who are at a distance can see things more clearly. We have a moral obligation to speak the truth when something important is at stake. And I’m telling you now. This is not normal.”

* * * *

The hospital where I work was built about a hundred years ago, completed not long before the outbreak of the First World War. It’s a dour catacomb of a place with slitted windows and thick brick walls that always feel dank to the touch. I have a difficult time imagining the consumptive crowds that were once nursed here doing anything other than dying like flies. After a philanthropic windfall in the early nineties, an enormous new wing was added, a blinding glass-and-steel tower that looms above the surrounding neighborhoods. The old wing was taken over by the nearby medical school and converted into classrooms and a collection of small cell-like labs and the patient beds were whisked away from the gloom and sibilant radiators and into the pristine hushed halls, partitioned off by doors that whisked open and closed at the touch of a button, and sealed off pockets of antiseptic air in their wake. Our transplant center is nationally recognized. At all hours of the day and night, helicopters carrying hearts, livers, and corneas land and take off from the roof above our heads. So well-soundproofed are the walls around us that unless you are listening for them—that far-off stuttering—you cannot hear them coming or going.

In a place so insulated from the world, illuminated always in a surreal state of permaday, the hours have a strange fluidity to them. The shadows are fixed at right angles under the fluorescent lighting, never shifting, except across the curtains of the shaded nooks where the sleeping stir. These patients on the eighth floor, where I work—the transplant patients—have undergone the most invasive surgical procedures yet developed by modern science—operations that take eight to fourteen hours, equipment that costs millions of dollars, precise handiwork that takes surgeons years to acquire. The first time I observed one of these spectacles as a nursing student, I was dazzled by its complexity. The intricate order of steps, the exactness of the incisions, the subtle give-and-take of the gestures—all on the gaping, ever-shifting terrain of a body, no two ever the same.

And yet lately, I am struck by the crudeness of the work. There’s such an element of butchery to it—carving out a piece of a person and replacing it with a stranger’s, hoping it takes. The people who make it out look ravaged—held together by stitching, bruised in spectacular colors, swollen beyond recognition. A few months ago, I stopped assisting in those desperate marathon procedures. Over time I have begun to prefer the soothing tasks of working the floor—taking temperatures, administering medication, keeping an eye on the machines that monitor a patient’s tenuous connection to life.

I rarely work double shifts anymore, especially while Paul is away. The one I took today a last-minute favor to a nurse named Bette, who had to leave town suddenly to be with her ill mother. I have forgotten how hard it is to stand all day, to walk quietly, to hold my head up and stay aware. At ten o’clock in the evening, with one hour left on my shift, I climb the ten floors to the roof. I have not taken a break since lunch.

Stepping outside is like pressing your face into a body, warm and damp to the point of suffocating. Nurses and techs cluster around the perimeter of the building, smoking and talking quietly. The majority of the nurses smoke. The doctors, with few exceptions, do not. A liver is scheduled to arrive shortly, so the floodlights around the landing pad have been switched on, and everyone’s features are cast in a dramatic chiaroscuro—all hooded eyes and flickering fingers that spin and twine the smoke. Most of them are looking up, straining their eyes toward the dimming sky. The techs collect a small pool—the first person to spot the Survival Flight chopper claims a free lunch in the cafeteria the next day. I never win this game and do not play it.

Instead I turn and stare out over the railing at the glittering constellation of the city at my feet, small stars blinking on and shutting off, headlights streaking across their orbits, one after another. From across the roof, a shout goes up, “Thar she blows!” and then a smattering of applause and boos. Because everyone else is straining their gaze upward, I am the first person to see the city go dark—a blackening that starts on the horizon and races toward us—an orderly but breathtakingly swift advance like knitting unraveling—and before I can even exclaim it has engulfed us. The building shudders and dims, and then the generators beneath us kicks to life with an audible jolt. The very air smells of electricity.

“Clear the deck!” someone yells, and then the helicopter is overhead with its thought-obliterating roar, churning the stagnant air into a frenzy, whipping the parallel lines of shadow and light into a series of tangled snapping ends. On cue, everyone takes off running, straining through the wind like water, scrubs billowing, hair bristling like tentacles, all charged with purpose, animated once again, all trying to think and breathe at once.

* * * *

When I board the southbound bus, an hour later, the electricity is still not back on. Traffic is backed up along all the major streets; each intersection beneath its dark and gutted traffic light must be hazarded with a series of nods and hand gestures. Some drivers cautiously bide their time; others blaze through with one hand on the horn. The police, clad in reflective green vests, are out, at the worst of them flailing their arms in the headlights as if they are trying to wave down planes.

Our bus driver is a grizzled old man with an expression of beatific patience. He depresses and releases the brake pedal as if nothing whatsoever were amiss with the world. Around me, the other passengers stare grimly at their own reflections in the glass.

Someone in the back calls for the radio to be turned up. The power is out all along the Eastern Seaboard, as far south as Richmond and far north as Boston. No one knows exactly why yet, but it appears there has been a massive grid failure. The radio announcer is interviewing an electrical engineer who talks at great length about the energy-sucking greed of air-conditioners. There is nothing more specific to blame at this juncture, but I know that will come. Except for the sound of idling engines, the night is eerily quiet. The blackness presses against the windows and each flash of passing headlights illuminates the pale whorls of fingerprints, hundreds of them as if someone had tried to climb the pane. Then they vanish into the darkness again.

* * * *

Leah is lying on the couch reading a book when I walk through the door. A bowl, its bottom crusted with the splinters of potato chips, sits on the floor beside her elbow. Next to that a white taper leans at a precarious angle from a coffee mug. The wax beads are slipping along the candle and pooling on the lip of the mug, threatening a downward advance to the rug.

“Ugh,” I say to the guttering light. “How can you see anything?”

“It’s not that bad.” She turns the page.

“Well.” I carefully shake off my shoes and sink to the floor behind the couch. “I’m afraid we might be in for the long haul here, kiddo.” There’s a loose scrap of paper with Leah’s handwriting resting along the baseboard, and I pick it up and turn it over in my hand. As I stare at it thoughtlessly, I remember the morning after my meeting with Sister Clarence, how I had found Leah’s homework on the kitchen table, a paper full of diagrammed sentences, their clauses spreading out, participle from gerund, like the branching of a tree. I had believed diagramming sentences to be a lost art, but there it was. The beautifully even curves of her penmanship had caused my throat to tighten. Surely, I thought, a person who could execute what was required of her with such grace—surely she would find her way in the world. I crease the paper carefully and slip it in my pocket. “How was class?” I ask her.

“It was fine.” One sock-clad foot twitches above the back of the couch. “Tolerable.”

“Succinctly put, as always.”

“We read some poetry.”

“Anything good?”

“Some Frost. Some Cummings. I’ve read it before.”

“Well, la-dee-dah.” I say the words as gently as I can. She cannot see my face, and she will not assume that I am teasing her. “Did you have any interesting conversations?”

The foot twitches and disappears back into the depths of the couch. She mutters something inaudible.

“I can’t hear you, Leah. You need to enunciate. Remember what Sister Clarence said?”

“I said.” She sits up and stares at me over the cushions. Even in the flickering light I can see the places where she has been picking at her skin, pink patches on her cheeks and chin, as though she’s been stung. Her shining eyes are startlingly fierce, and my stomach drops at the sight of their sudden level gaze. “No one ever tells me the truth anymore.”

* * * *

Paul is not answering his phone. I check my watch and perform the brief subtraction in my head—at twelve o’clock in the morning, this math requires more effort than it should. Eight o’clock. My husband is roaming the tundra at the top of the world, photographing the Inupiat or walruses on glaciers that are melting into the sea. Now that they are going, everyone wants pictures. I pace the dark halls, and every time I enter a room, flick the light switch before I remember. Every window in the house is pressed tightly shut, but the muggy outside air is slowly stealing in around us through the ventilation shafts. I can feel it. Almost all of my neighbors have bedded down for the night—the white scribbling of flashlight beams in the dark windows has vanished.

Feeling my way with my feet, I descend down into the black depths of the bottom floor of our townhouse. The door of the little laundry room beneath our stairs is shut tightly, and the only way I can make this out is to brush its grooved surface with my hands. Paul still uses this space as a darkroom—the walls exhale an astringent chemical stench—but very rarely because now he has a gleaming new camera that instantly captures his pictures on a tiny intricate screen—no need for film or fixing solutions or waiting in the dark. The grunt work eliminated by this technology is his and not my own, so I have never asked him if anything else might be lost—no more carrying the silvery germs of unknown possibilities with you through strange cities and across unknown terrains, submerging them, hoping for something lovely to swim up from the depths. I admit that I find it depressing—the universe reduced to an arrangement of pixels. I alluded to this once, and Paul ruffled my hair, and said, “Sure, but the end result is the same, is it not?”

The burst of the phone, one floor above me, through the still house, is electrifying. For a minute I flounder as if I have been dropped into deep water; I cannot find the stairs. But then I regain my footing and make it to the kitchen before the final ring.

“Hey,” Paul says. Sometimes he sounds startled when I answer the phone at my own house, as if he expected another woman to pick up. “You called from the landline. I almost didn’t recognize the number.”

“I did,” I say. “The power is out. Our other phones aren’t working.”

“Mm.” This news does not interest him in the least, and he cannot pretend otherwise. “I thought maybe something was wrong.”

“Well,” I say, but then somehow I do not know quite what it was I meant to tell him. “I mean no, nothing apart from the usual. How are things up there?”

“Extraordinary.” He speaks like this whenever he is out on a shoot, prone to using superlatives, his voice slightly winded. “We’re sleeping in tents, and you can see the borealis right through the walls. The birds sing until midnight. It’s amazing.”

“That must make it difficult to sleep.” I’m surprised by the edge to my voice, but the subtleties of inflection are lost in the transmission, and Paul does not make them out. He talks on, telling me how they take the boys out hunting, boys younger than Leah, the bloodiness of the killing, but I am having a difficult time hearing him over that strange low mumbling noise. It’s louder than before, or maybe I am simply too tired to pick and choose what I hear, and all the sounds are merging together.

“Paul.” I have to interrupt him at last. “I worked a double shift. I can’t think straight. I’ll call you later.” And we say good-bye.

* * * *

The alarm on my wristwatch wakes me the next morning. This mess we’re caught in has still not been resolved—I understand this even before I roll over and catch sight of the blank face on my bedside clock. The air around me has a deadened feel to it—none of the reassuring clicks of air being compressed, of currents humming through the wires. Ansel, for once, is awake before me, and he regards me anxiously, his chin on the mattress. I am stuck to my sheets, and when I peel myself away, I can see the creases they have impressed upon me during the dreamless night, like the rivers in an atlas.

* * * *

I am not due at the hospital until noon, but I have to send Leah off. The woman who answers the phone at St. Thomas informs me that yes, they have a generator. The school is still open today, so while Leah brushes her teeth upstairs, I patch together a peanut butter sandwich and wrap a bunch of grapes in plastic. The fruit in the bowl on the counter is ripening too quickly—a few forerunner flies are already scouting out the tawny horizons of our apples. I do not open the refrigerator.

Leah appears silently at the foot of the stairs. It is as if she has lost weight in the night—there’s something birdlike about the bones in her wrists, a sharpened delicacy in the cleft at the base of her throat. She’s turning translucent around the edges. What will I feed her? I wonder. We cannot subsist for days on end on peanut butter, and everything in the kitchen is going soft and sour.

Ansel trails at her heels, and as she passes through the door, he makes an unexpected dash after her. I barely catch his collar as the screen door recoils, and the moment he has been safely snagged, I stare down at him, dumbfounded. I cannot remember the last time I saw him move with such speed. Out loud, to Leah’s retreating back, I say, “You make quite a pair, Ansel.” My silent daughter, my deaf dog.

* * * *

I leave for work early. Even in the bright morning sunlight, the windows in the houses appear strangely opaque. I cannot remember the last time I have seen the city so quiet. All the side streets have been transformed into wide and spacious avenues. The occasional car rolls cautiously past, its driver unable to quite believe it—all that pavement and no need to share it with anyone. Even the homeless in the park have disappeared. Their benches are empty, and the pale decrees carved in the dark green painted slats blaze like runes in the morning light. Still, the afterimages of those mysterious equations linger on my retinas; shining imprints that hang between me and the rest of the world. There’s a photographic trick that creates this effect. Paul explained it to me once, how you burn one negative after another onto the same paper. No matter how well you do it though, he said to me, the merging is never completely seamless. If you care enough, if you know where to look, you can find the sutures, the small discrepancies in clarity and proportion, in lighting and shadow that give away the lie.

 

 

From HEART ATTACK WATCH. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2016 by Alyson Foster.




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